News: Quick Takes

More UNC campuses giving free speech its due, FIRE reports

UNC Greensboro and N.C. Central get 'green light' ratings from civil-liberties group, giving UNC system three of 31 schools nationally with that ranking

(CJ photo by Kari Travis)
(CJ photo by Kari Travis)

RALEIGH — First Amendment Rights just got the “green light” on two University of North Carolina campuses.

New findings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan research and litigation organization, show a positive shift in speech protections at UNC Greensboro and North Carolina Central University.

FIRE divides public and private universities into three rankings; red light, yellow light, and green light. Red-light schools are the worst offenders of free speech. Green-light schools are the best at upholding First Amendment rights.

As of last year, only one UNC school — UNC Chapel Hill — was rated as a green-light campus. Thursday, UNC Greensboro and N.C. Central, formerly ranked as red-light schools, saw their lights turn green.

UNC’s remaining 13 schools stay in the yellow category. Yellow-light policies, while not inherently restrictive, contain arbitrary wording that could be used to stifle free speech.

It’s heartening to see public universities voluntarily change bad policies, said Azhar Majeed, vice president of policy reform at FIRE.

N.C. Central overhauled eight restrictions, including residential life and sexual harassment codes, he said.

The university reached out to FIRE last year, asking staffers for input.

UNC Greensboro also was proactive. The school revised its sexual harassment policy, the only red-light code on its books, then asked FIRE to review it.

Both schools passed FIRE’s test with flying colors.

Every university should take similar action, Majeed said. But often, that’s not reality.

“Unfortunately it’s … common for us to be ignored, or to find that the university is unresponsive when we point out those types of policy issues,” he said.

Of the 100 schools FIRE contacted last year, roughly 30 asked the organization to help make their speech codes constitutional, a positive thing, Majeed said.

“[But] that also leaves dozens of schools that didn’t respond or are apparently not interested in making those policy changes,” he added. “That’s unfortunate, given that it keeps those unconstitutional policies on the books where they can always be brought up against a student or faculty member.”

There are only 31 green-light universities, both public and private, in the United States.

Schools such as N.C. Central and UNC Greensboro should be lauded for their efforts, said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s vice president of policy research.

“We want every school to be a green-light, and to work with every school administration as much as possible, but it’s not as common as we would hope,” she said. “So when a school like a UNC Greensboro reaches out to us and says ‘we want to do this,’ it’s something we’re really excited and happy about.”

East Carolina University and UNC Wilmington, now yellow-light schools, are working with FIRE to move into the green category, Majeed told CJ.

Carolina Journal made multiple attempts to contact NCCU and UNCG, but received no comment by press time.

FIRE’s campus ratings recently have influenced legislative discussions on free speech. Lawmakers are debating House Bill 527, a measure that would protect First Amendment rights at all 16 UNC campuses. Republican lawmakers are in favor. Democrats are opposed, saying their is little need for more bureaucratic oversight of speech rights. Click here to read more on this story.